Saturday, December 26, 2015

The Philippines and South Korea: brothers in peace and war

THE BEST WAY to have fun as a tourist is to plan and prepare. Doing both means you’ll have more time to enjoy your limited time as a tourist in another country, and will save you a lot of money.

It also means making an effort to know more about the country you’re visiting. That’s a lot easy these days. You can go to YouTube for videos; read about your destination on the Internet and use your Facebook account to connect with your friends who’ve visited the country.

When you plan and prepare your trip to South Korea, you’ll discover that the Philippines and South Korea share a very deep historical bond. The ties that bind the Philippines to South Korea are so strong we can consider these countries as brothers, or “hyeongje” in Hangul, the Korean language.

The Philippines is the older brother or “hyung” (“kuya” in Filipino) while South Korea is the younger brother or “dong saeng.” And why is this so, you might ask? Why is the Philippines “hyung” to South Korea, a country that is today one of the 15 richest nations in the world?

It’s because of historical facts that most Filipinos don’t know about even today. South Korea, or more specifically the Republic of Korea, came into existence only on August 15, 1948. The independent state of Korea was conquered by the Empire of Japan in 1910, and for the next 35 years was ruled by Japan with a brutality that shocked the world.

The formerly independent state of Korea was divided into two by the Allies: the northern portion was a communist entity called North Korea while the southern portion or South Korea was administered by the United Nations.

In September 1947, a proposal by the Philippines at the United Nations helped guarantee South Korea’s first general election that led directly to the creation of the Republic of Korea on August 15, 1948.

Six months later or on March 3, 1949, the Philippines became the first Asian state to open diplomatic relations with the Republic of Korea. The Philippines was a “ninong” (godfather) to South Korea at its birth.

In a letter to President Elpidio Quirino, Syngman Rhee, first President of South Korea, said of the Philippines:

“As a nation which courageously and with high vision stood resolutely in the forefront of the international movement to re-establish the sovereignty resident in the people of Korea, your generous and forthright extension of recognition to Korea comes as a happy augury of cordial relationships of our two peoples.”

Fifteen months later or on June 25, 1950, communist North Korea launched a massive and surprise invasion of South Korea, igniting the Korean War. South Korea asked the world for aid and the Philippines immediately responded.

The Philippines rushed food, medical supplies, tanks and weapons to South Korea in the weeks after the communist invasion. On August 7, President Elpidio Quirino announced the decision to send Filipino soldiers to South Korea to save it from communist conquest.

The Philippines became the first Asian nation to send troops to defend South Korea, and the fourth member state of the United Nations to do so.

On September 19, 1950, less than three months after the start of the Korean War, the first Filipino warriors landed in Korea at the port city of Busan. The 10th Battalion Combat Team (BCT) was the first of five Filipino BCTs that would serve in Korea from 1950 to 1955 under the Philippine Expeditionary Force to Korea or PEFTOK.

In all, some 7,400 Filipino soldiers served in Korea. Of this total, 112 died in defense of South Korea; some 400 were wounded while 16 Filipinos remain missing-in-action until today. The Philippines paid a heavy price as “hyung” or “kuya” to South Korea, its “dong saeng.”

A history of the Philippines’ role in the Korean War is on the Internet at

Never forgotten
South Koreans of today have not forgotten the sacrifice Filipinos made for them during the Korean War. And they remain thankful for our courage and humanity that helped save their nation from communist conquest.

Remember this when you visit South Korea. Be proud to be Filipino in South Korea because there would be no South Korea today if the Philippines and 15 other United Nations’ countries hadn’t sent their soldiers to the Korean War.

I discovered this first-hand during a “Revisit” to South Korea in May 2012 along with five Filipino veterans of the Korean War and the children and grandchildren of other veterans.

A husband and wife in our group said they were walking down a street in downtown Seoul when an elderly Korean woman old enough to be a grandmother approached them. The Korean noticed the identification cards both wore around their neck that said “Korean War Veteran” and that bore a symbol of the National Flag.

“Filipino?” the Korean asked.

When they replied “Yes,” the Korean began bowing and thanking them for helping her country during the Korean War.

“She kept thanking and thanking us so much we were embarrassed,” said the wife.

“It was only then we began to understand the importance of what the Philippines did for Korea,” noted her husband.

Both of them agreed it felt very good to be a Filipino that day.

Korea is for Filipinos
South Korea is a wonderful country for tourists. That’s why it was visited by over eight million tourists in 2011, a number twice that of the Philippines’.

Tourists visit South Korea for two main reasons: shopping and culture. Filipinos will find both in Seoul. The combination of shopping and culture makes Seoul, a megacity of 10 million persons, Korea’s top tourist destination. Seoul is the best choice to start your visit to South Korea.  

The Korea Tourism Organization has a list of the top 10 tourist spots in South Korea. Three of these favorites are in Seoul. One other favorite is Jeju Island.

The top tourist destination in South Korea isn’t a place. It’s an activity that women love. Yes, it’s shopping and shopping is Korea’s Number One tourist draw.

The most popular shopping sites for tourists in Seoul are the Namdaemun Market in Jung-gu (or Jung District); Dongdaemun Market in Jongno-gu; Myeongdong (or Myeong Neighborhood in Jung-gu) and Insadong in Jongno-gu.

Shopping isn’t cheap in South Korea (as I and my travel buddies found out) but Filipinos are convinced that the high quality of Korean products is a good buy despite their upmarket cost. Remember that P1.00 is worth 26 Korean Won (as of mid-November 2012).

But since only very few banks and money changers will exchange our Peso for the Won, you’ll have to bring U.S. Dollars instead. The conversion rate is generally US$1.00 equals 1,000 Won. A can of Coke costs about 1,000 Won. Blouses at the Doota Fashion Mall in Dongdaemun sell at around 30,000 to 35,000 won.

Almost always at the top of the Filipina tourist’s shopping list in Seoul is “BB Cream,” the original Korean versions. Our lovely Korean tour guide said she uses it every day and revealed it’s the main reason why many Korean women seem to have such enviable, flawless skin.

The letters “BB” in BB Cream has many meanings: blemish balm, blemish base and even “beblesh balm.” Whatever the true meaning, BB Cream is incredibly popular in Korea, accounting for some 13% of the Korean cosmetics industry’s total sales.

The other two top tourist attractions in Seoul are cultural sites:  the Korean Folk Village and the Ancient Palaces. I’ve visited both these places and they gave me invaluable insights into Korea’s glorious imperial past.

The Korean Folk Village is a recreation of a Korean village of the Joseon Dynasty that ruled Korea from 1392 to 1897. There are some 260 traditional houses in the village, which was built to promote Korean culture and folk customs.

There are Five Grand Palaces built by the Joseon Dynasty in Seoul. My group visited the famous Gyeongbokgung Palace located in Jongno-gu. The palace is also known as Gyeongbokgung Palace or Gyeongbok Palace.

The magnificent palace is the main and largest palace of the Five Grand Palaces built by the Joseon Dynasty. Today, it is also famous for the daily “Changing of the Royal Guards” ceremony that takes place at the Gwanghwamun and Heungnyemun plazas beginning 3:00 p.m.

The royal guards, or the “Wanggung Sumunjang,” had the important duty of protecting the Korean king. Posing with these stern and bearded guards is a favorite among tourists, some of whom try to make these unsmiling men smile but without success.

While in Seoul make it a point to visit and have your picture taken at two monuments that honor the Philippines’ fast friendship with South Korea.

The first is the War Memorial of Korea, a massive museum in Seoul’s Yongsan-gu district that memorializes the military history of Korea. Opened in 1994, the memorial building has six indoor exhibition rooms and an outdoor exhibition center displaying over 13,000 war memorabilia and military equipment.

Ascending the incline towards the memorial building first takes you to a hallway on whose walls are inscribed the names of the United Nations soldiers who died defending South Korea. The brass plaque for the Philippines has on it the names of the 112 Filipino soldiers who did not come home from the Korean War. Located at the second floor of the building is the hall housing the exhibit about the Korean War, including an exhibit about the Philippines’ role in the war.

The other monument is a gymnasium. The Jangchung Gymnasium in Jung-gu was built in 1963 by the Philippines for South Korea. The 7,000 seat gymnasium is South Korea’s first ever indoor sports arena. It was built during the administration of President Diosdado Macapagal as part of our economic aid to South Korea, then a third world economy.

That the Philippines could afford to send economic aid to South Korea in the 1960s underlined the Philippines’ status as Southeast Asia’s leading economic and military power and Asia’s second largest economy. Jangchung stands proud as a symbol of Filipino humanity. The 50th Anniversary of its construction takes place this year.

It was a venue for the taekwondo (a demonstration event introduced here) and judo competitions from Sept. 17 to 20 during the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul. Ironically, the South Korean who won the taekwondo flyweight gold medal defeated a Filipino for the title at Jangchung.

But the most moving monument to Filipino greatness and humanity is the “Monument Dedicated to the Philippine Armed Forces in the Korean War” located in Goyang City, which is a 20 minute drive to the north of Seoul.

It was unveiled on October 2, 1974 “. . . in memory of the members of the Philippine Armed Forces who fought to defend the security and freedom of the Republic of Korea.”

The monument, now painted a glistening black, stands 17 meters tall. It is dominated by the life-sized statues of three Filipino soldiers representing the men of PEFTOK. The soldiers stand before a central column whose relief illustrates Filipino culture. The relief at the monument’s 4.5 meter long base depicts 50 Koreans portraying their country’s struggle for freedom and peace.

Wonderful Jeju
For tourists who love nature and who want an exotic adventure outside of Seoul, however, a trip to Jeju Island or the Jeju Special Self-Governing Province in the Korea Strait off the coast of southern Korea is to be considered.

Jeju receives over six million tourists (mostly South Koreans) every year making it one of the most popular domestic tourist destinations. A semi-tropical island, Jeju is a tourist island much like Boracay. Its temperature is in the high 20s (Centigrade), almost similar to that of Boracay’s.

Jeju has its own version of Boracay’s world famous “White Beach.” The white sand at Jeju’s “Hyeopjae Beach” on the island’s northwest comes from the large amounts of crushed seashells mixed in with the sand. Boracay’s famous powdery white sand, on the other hand, is powdered coral and sand.

Also called the “Island of the Gods” and “Honeymoon Island” (for obvious reasons), Jeju was voted one of the World’s Seven Natural Wonders in 2011 along with the Philippines’ Underground River in Palawan. 

Jeju has the tallest mountain (Mount Halla or “Hallasan”) in Korea. Jeju is a volcanic island. The volcano exploded long ago, tearing off its top half. What remained was a curious oval-shaped island with fertile soil and one-of-a-kind natural wonders such as Mount Halla’s crater lake called “Baengnokdam.”

Among the unique and oddest attractions on Jeju are the many “dol hareubang” or stone grandfather statues carved from blocks of basalt. The statues represent gods wearing hats that protect the people of Jeju from demons. The dol hareubang are the symbol of Jeju Island.

Filipinos that visit South Korea are visiting the home of a good friend. The Philippines has proved its friendship by nurturing the Republic of Korea at its birth and helping save it from destruction during the Korean War.